Mike Mussina seems to be gaining quickly in the Hall of Fame voting. This is his fifth year on the ballot, and he looks ready to take another pretty big leap forward. Live coverage of the 2018 Hall of Fame announcement begins Wednesday at 3 p.m. ET on MLB Network, simulcast live on MLB.com, with the electees named at 6.
If this momentum holds, and it probably will, Mussina should get elected in the next two or three years.
But why is it taking so long?
Enter: Gaylord Perry.
In 1989, a pretty big thing happened in Hall of Fame voting: Perry came on the ballot for the first time. In a way this was interesting because Perry was a known cheater ... heck, he was a proud cheater. He wrote a book called "Me and the Spitter." He flouted the rules in order to succeed by throwing the spitter, pretending to throw the spitter, etc. The Baseball Writers' Association of America celebrated him for it, voting him in on his third ballot; it would have been sooner but he debuted on the ballot with legends -- Carl Yastrzemski and Johnny Bench -- and it just took time to clear the decks for him.
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But the cheating thing is just a side note. The big part is that Perry won 314 games. He was the first of what would be an unprecedented run of 300-game winners to come on the ballot.
And some time during that unprecedented run, "winning 300 games" became the baseline for getting into the Hall of Fame.
Before Perry (and Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton and Nolan Ryan), winning 300 games was almost unheard of. Two post-World War II players had done it. One was the freakishly durable Warren Spahn, who just kept going and going and going and going -- during a 17-season period from 1947-63, Spahn won 20 games 13 times. The last of those was when he was 42. He threw 250 to 300 innings every year, sometimes topping 300 innings. Spahn was a freak of nature and one of the smartest pitchers in the game's history.
The other 300-game winner was Early Wynn, who won exactly 300 by just chugging along and chugging along, throwing every pitch he could think of from fastballs to sliders to curves to changeups to a knuckleball.
Spahn and Wynn got into the Hall in pretty short order -- it took Spahn two ballots, Wynn four -- but they were the only 300-game winners to choose from. Without any 300-game winners, Hall of Fame voters had to be a bit more open in their selections. From 1974 until Perry got on the ballot, the BBWAA voted in eight pitchers with win totals ranging from 143 (Hoyt Wilhelm, who was a reliever) to 286 (Robin Roberts).
The BBWAA voted in three starting pitchers with fewer than 225 victories (Bob Lemon, Don Drysdale and Catfish Hunter). It's unlikely that any of those three would be elected today. A pitcher like David Cone, you would have to say, was certainly as good a pitcher as any of the three, demonstrably better than Lemon or Hunter. He lasted just one year on the ballot.
This is because after the Perry 300-win train started rolling, the Hall of Fame standards became quite rigid. Nolan Ryan, the caboose of that train, was elected in 1999. For the next 10 years, there was not a single starting pitcher elected to the Hall -- the closest thing was Dennis Eckersley, who clearly was elected more for his relief pitching than his time as a starter.
Why did no one get elected? Because there was no 300-game winner to elect.
There were a bunch of pitchers who were almost 300-game winners, like Tommy John (288 wins), Bert Blyleven (287), Jim Kaat (283 wins) and Jack Morris (254 wins). It was acknowledged by many voters that if any of them could have stuck around for a little longer and gotten 300 wins, they would get the vote. But they didn't win 300, and so they just loitered on the ballot year after year. Blyleven, eventually, would be elected by the BBWAA thanks in part to an effective Internet campaign and in part to his astounding 3,701 strikeouts. Even that took a whole lot of work.
Other superb pitchers like Dennis Martinez (245), Frank Tanana (240), Rick Reuschel (214), Kevin Brown (211), Orel Hershiser (204), Cone and Bret Saberhagen (167) got no Hall of Fame traction at all.
Since Ryan's election, the only non-300-win starting pitchers to get elect to the Hall are Blyleven, Pedro Martinez (219) and John Smoltz (213).
Blyleven was a unique case (and he did win 287 games). Pedro was the most dominant pitcher of his time, probably all-time. Smoltz seemed to get in on the Eckersley "part starter/part reliever" exemption.
All of which finally brings us to Mussina. He won 270 games with a 3.68 career ERA and, as such, was very quickly labeled, "Not quite good enough." The higher ERA was entirely a function of the time; Mussina pitched in hitters' ballparks during the hottest offensive era since the 1930s, and so his 3.68 ERA, in context, is actually a touch better than, say, Don Drysdale's 2.95 ERA. Mussina's ERA+ was 123, the same as Marichal (who had a 2.89 ERA) and five points better than Tom Glavine (who had a lower 3.54 ERA but played in the National League).
More than anything, though, it seems to be the 270 wins that weigh his Hall of Fame credentials down. True, the pitcher win has lost favor in most baseball circles. It was always a pretty unsound statistic, but as starting pitchers go fewer innings and bullpens take over the final two or three innings of ballgames, the pitcher win has grown less and less telling.
Mussina's teams went 325-210 (.607) in his 535 starts.
Wynn's teams went 338-273 (.553) in his 611 starts.
Perry's teams went 360-329 (.522) in his 689 starts.
But somehow the 270 wins have put Mussina in no-man's land. Mussina's case is particularly interesting, because he made a conscious choice not to just stick around in order to get to 300 victories. In his last season with the Yankees, he won 20 for the first time. He led the league in starts, threw 200 innings. He hardly walked anybody -- 28 unintentional walks in 200 1/3 innings is pretty special. It was the 15th time he had ranked in the Top 10 in fewest walks per nine innings.
Mussina no doubt could have kept that going for a while. It might have taken three years, but he probably could have pushed on to 300 wins and locked up the Hall of Fame. He decided no, he had pitched long enough. He had done everything he could do in the game. His Hall of Fame case was on the table.
It is, to me, a slam-dunk case. I could give you 270 reasons for that. Let's just use one: Every pitcher in baseball history with at least 75 WAR is in the Hall of Fame except:
Roger Clemens (139.4 WAR). We know that story.
Mussina (82.7 WAR)
Curt Schilling (80.7 WAR). He's tomorrow's guest star.
Yes, lots of people don't like the WAR stat. But ask yourself: How could Mussina have accumulated so many wins above replacement -- more than 48 pitchers already in the Hall of Fame -- without being truly great? He could not have. He was a pitching marvel, a guy who attacked hitters, hardly ever walked anybody, fielded his position brilliantly (seven Gold Gloves Awards) and excelled at a time when hitters were given all the advantages.
Mussina is an all-time great pitcher, and he belongs in the Hall of Fame, and he will get there. If the voters had not become overwhelmed by the rush of 300-game winners, I think he would have gotten there already.